Nadia Boulanger

Meet the pioneering woman who taught Philip Glass, Aaron Copland and a generation of American composers

When Philip Glass met Nadia Boulanger, in 1964, she was already a relic: “a tough, aristocratic Frenchwoman,” Glass remembered, “elegantly dressed in fashions 50 years out of date.” Sitting in her apartment on the rue Ballu, Boulanger made her new student squirm, silently leafing through the scores he had brought. Finally, she pointed to a single bar: “There,” she said. “This was written by a real composer.” As Glass ruefully recalled: “That was the first and last time she said anything nice to me for the next two years.”

By that point, studying with Boulanger had become a rite of passage for American composers. Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson led the way in the ’20s, transforming Boulanger’s clear, tart tonal exactness into a new version of hardy Americana. Elliott Carter followed in the ’30s, going on to spin Boulanger’s long-line structural gospel into unprecedentedly complex tapestries. George Gershwin approached Boulanger for lessons, the story goes, taking her abrupt conclusion – “I can teach you nothing” – as supreme encouragement. A few years before Glass arrived in Paris, Quincy Jones, already an experienced jazz journeyman, submitted to Boulanger’s regimen. And those were only some of the famous ones; as composer Ned Rorem once put it, “Myth credits every American town with two things: a 10-cent store and a Boulanger student.”

Boulanger was an unlikely, contradictory guru.

The students, in many cases, entered the artistic vanguard, but the vanguard was auxiliary to Boulanger’s curriculum. More important was an elementary musical education. She was an often-cited source of the aphorism that one has to know the rules in order to break the rules. That truism dissolves upon scrutiny, but it underpinned Boulanger’s faith in discipline, in propriety and in mastering the same practices as the great musicians of the past which, to her, formed music’s noble genealogy.

Boulanger was an unlikely, contradictory guru. She was a fiercely orthodox musician who had pursued institutional approval and traditional excellence; she would go on to both champion and teach some of music’s most notorious enfants terribles. She was a skeptic of democracy who thought that women ought not to vote; she godmothered two distinct waves of populism in American classical music. Her allure went beyond politics, religion, even style. Within the historical whirlwind of music history, Boulanger offered hard-won treasure: a provenance.

Music – and lineage – were family obsessions. Nadia’s father, Ernest Boulanger, was a composer and conductor, a singing professor, a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. At the age of 62, he married Raïssa Mychetsky, 43 years his junior, a student from St. Petersburg. She claimed to be a Russian princess, though it was never confirmed. (There are circumstantial hints that she was the illegitimate offspring of royalty.) Nadia was born in 1887, the first of the couple’s children to survive infancy.

Between her father’s work and his famous colleagues (Charles Gounod and Gabriel Fauré were frequent houseguests), Nadia was surrounded by music. And, at first, she hated it, fleeing any room in which it was played. But something changed when she was five: the sound of a fire bell inspired her to rush to the piano and attempt an imitation. Soon, Nadia was attending classes at the Conservatoire. Raïssa pushed her daughter with an insistence that only intensified after Ernest died in 1900. Nadia – by teaching, performing and composing – would end up supporting the family.

Maurice Maeterlinck - Cantique de la Vierge

Conservatoire training exemplified systematic rigor. Boulanger mastered it all. But she also could make the exactness an end in itself. After she graduated (and began teaching), she competed for the Prix de Rome, the grueling, high-profile, state-sponsored composition contest (which her father had won in 1835). Boulanger pursued the prize four years in a row. On her third attempt, she defied convention, sparking a minor controversy by submitting an instrumental fugue, rather than the required vocal one. The boldness yielded her best result – second place – yet she seems to have taken the opposite lesson. Her polished compositions displayed a decided penchant for circumscription, repeated patterns and pedal tones. At the climax of phrases, she would often sidestep traditional satisfaction with a sudden bit of harmonic sleight-of-hand. (Not that she couldn’t go the other way; on those occasions she gave in to expectation – as in her 1909 setting of the “Cantique de la Vierge” from Maurice Maeterlinck’s Sœur Béatrice – her pacing and precise voicing make the commonplace exquisite.)

Boulanger began to gain traction as a performer as well, on both the piano and the organ. She became the protégé – and, it has long been rumored, perhaps more – of Raoul Pugno, an elderly, portly Mozart specialist, a pianist of refinement and control. Pugno’s death, in 1914, hit Boulanger hard. It was only a prelude.

Lili Boulanger - Veille Priére Bouddhique

Lili Boulanger was the baby of the family, sickly and beloved. Raïssa made Nadia swear that she would always take care of her younger sister; it was, Nadia recalled, her early, abrupt passage into adulthood.

Tagging along to Nadia’s Conservatoire classes, Lili soon emerged as a genius in her own right. In 1913, she achieved what Nadia had long sought, the Prix de Rome. Despite continuing ill-health, she traveled to Rome to take up the winner’s prerogative, a multi-year residency at the Villa Medici – where everyone (with the exception of a crotchety administrator) seems to have loved her unreservedly. And then war broke out, and Lili, mere months into her stay, impulsively returned to France, She started a charity, sending food, clothing and encouragement to musicians now in the trenches.

It became Nadia’s charity as well. They lined up supplies and sponsors. (One suspects that it was Nadia who took on one of the charity’s more unusual services, that of reviewing and correcting soldiers’ counterpoint and harmony exercises.) It was noble work and it was exhausting work. Drained from the effort, Lili died in 1918, eight months before the armistice. She was 24.

Within a few years, Nadia had abandoned her own composing and turned her focus to teaching and conducting. The repertoire became her fortress. She took refuge in the past and – strictly on the past’s terms – the future.

Boulanger’s embrace of the new was governed by its possible connections with the past.

Boulanger grew up in the wake of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, a debacle that left France desperate for a rededication to French national ideals. Of course, what those ideals were, no one could quite agree. For her own part, Boulanger tended to take the conservative side in such disputes. She espoused nationalism, monarchism and, although her good manners kept it from her often-Jewish students, anti-Semitism. Her politics shaded her music. As a conductor and educator, Boulanger’s focus, on the one hand, drifted backwards in time, toward the rational counterpoint of the Renaissance, the rhetorical immanence of Bach and Beethoven. At the same time, her embrace of the new would be governed by its possible connections with seemingly idyllic national and musical pasts.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Boulanger’s reaction to the twin poles of the early 20th-century avant-garde, the expressionistic 12-tone music of Arnold Schoenberg and the brazenly fashionable neo-classicism of Igor Stravinsky. Boulanger, ever pursuing expertise for its own sake, familiarized herself with both. But Schoenberg, carrying German Romantic baggage that weighed heavily in post-1870 France, fell by the wayside; it was Stravinsky’s music that Boulanger found she could most readily defend, finding in it the buzzwords of clarity and reason that, long ago, had defined the French Revolution and, more recently, had become taken up by the French right to bolster their claim to the nation’s history. Never mind that Stravinsky, it could be argued, didn’t so much resurrect the past as expertly embalm it. For Boulanger, it was Stravinsky, not Schoenberg, that preserved the historical line.

Besides, Schoenberg was a middle-class striver; Stravinsky had noble airs, eyeing democracy and liberalism with refined disdain. And Boulanger was forever enamored of aristocracy, whether assumed or literal. For the rest of her career, any of her students with a noble connection would have an easier time of it.

One female student garnered the ultimate approval: Boulanger addressed her as “Monsieur.”

Women, though, came under particular scrutiny. Perhaps it was just mirroring Boulanger’s own experience. Because of her gender, the only institutional jobs available to her were, necessarily, with newly founded institutions: the Conservatoire Femina-Musica, the École normale de musique, the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. (The Paris Conservatoire finally offered her a position after World War II.)

She was the first woman to grace the podium of more than a few major orchestras, but she disdained any idea of a feminist crusade. (Asked, in 1938, how she felt to be the first female conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boulanger icily responded: “I’ve been a woman for a little more than 50 years, and I’ve gotten over my original astonishment.”) Women in Boulanger’s classes were held to exacting standards. Jenna Orkin, later a journalist and activist, was a student in Boulanger’s final summer class at Fontainebleau, in 1979, just a few months before her death; Orkin remembered one female student garnering ultimate approval: Boulanger addressed her as “Monsieur.”

But Boulanger didn’t cherry pick, either. Anyone could be a Boulanger student. Those with lesser skills were taken in alongside prodigies and professionals. Under Boulanger and Annette Dieudonné, Boulanger’s one-time student and longtime assistant, remedial training always came first, a back-to-basics boot camp of theory and analysis. (“From a young man of 26,” Glass wrote, “I became a child again, relearning everything from the beginning.”) “How many notes are there?” Boulanger would ask. 12? 88? As many as could be imagined? The answer Boulanger sought was seven, the diatonic scale, to which everything else was an inflection or embellishment.

That edict put Boulanger at odds with the atonality and serialism that came into full flower in the 20th-century avant-garde. She kept up with new movements – by the ’60s, her analysis classes included works by Boulez and Stockhausen (albeit only after a heavy diet of old masters) – but more out of duty than anything. Both Copland, her most famous student, and Stravinsky, her most championed hero, turned to serialist techniques in the ‘50s and ‘60s; Boulanger digested the works but never conducted them. To the end, she continued to think of music in terms of order and hierarchy: scale and mode, tonic and dominant, consonance and dissonance.

Bye Bye Birdie

Boulanger rode out World War II in America, teaching in Boston, New York and Baltimore, a sojourn that accelerated the post-war stream of Americans coming to the rue Ballu. Classical composers continued to come to her, of course; an entire generation of American neo-classicists – Harold Shapero, Irving Fine, Alexei Haieff, John La Montaine – kept Stravinsky’s tonal austerity going even after Stravinsky himself had moved on. But there were also jazz musicians: Jones, trumpeter Donald Byrd, saxophonist Gigi Bryce. Brazilian guitarist Egberto Gismonti and Argentinian tango master Ástor Piazzolla passed through Boulanger’s studio. She taught the ubiquitous Broadway arranger Robert Russell Bennett in the ’20s, and Charles Strouse, the composer of Bye Bye Birdie, in the ’50s. Joe Raposo, the musical chameleon behind the songs of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, acquired that versatility and precision from Boulanger.

For composers, her greatest strength as a teacher was her ability to understand the possibilities of piece beyond style. “She knew how to look at a page of music, or even a half a page of music dispassionately,” Copland recalled, “and to judge it in terms of what that particular student sitting next to her was able to accomplish.” When Bernstein sent her a score to West Side Story, she responded with enthusiasm and a subtle critique: “I am enchanted by its dazzling nature – perhaps facility is a danger, but it is enough to be aware of that and follow it.” Jones remembered Boulanger offering holistic advice: “Quincy,” she told him, “your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.”

But the assumptions at the core of her pedagogy were derived from the strictures of the canon, and couldn’t help but push the music her students made in the canon’s direction. In Boulanger’s curriculum, Stravinsky and his followers were the keepers of the flame; the atonalists, the experimenters with chance and noise – they had renounced music’s patrimony. (In a strange way, her inclusion of serialist works in her analysis class was a way to use her know-the-rules-to-break-the-rules credo against them; no one could accuse a Boulanger student of rejecting serialism out of ignorance.) To undergo Boulanger’s rigorous training was to absorb her sense of music history: evolution, not revolution.

Philip Glass - Music in Contrary Motion

Glass’s case is emblematic. In the thick of the minimalist advent, having “learned to hear” from Boulanger, he produced a series of large-scale works – Music in Contrary Motion, Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion, Music in Changing Parts – that, in essence, turned the basic building blocks of harmonic and contrapuntal practice that Boulanger espoused into great, grand edifices, the old verities once again fresh, formidable and controversial.

By that time, Boulanger herself was a monument. That had always been her plan. She saved everything, every letter, every analysis, every piece, with an eye toward preserving her legacy with institutional permanence. She convinced the city of Paris to change its geography so that she lived on a literal commemoration: 36 rue Ballu became 1 Place Lili-Boulanger.

“She is to this day,” Bernstein wrote to a friend in 1974, “so terribly aware of time passing.” It was, perhaps, because time was her ultimate insurance: surviving time’s passage was, to Boulanger, a sign that something was true, and crucial, and worthy. Orkin, sitting in that last summer of classes, remarked that “the people of whom she spoke most affectionately – Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky – were all dead.” To anyone else it would be poignant; to Boulanger, it was, as much as anything, an anticipation of good company.

By Matthew Guerrieri on February 13, 2017

On a different note